DEAR JERRY: I stumbled across an online video of Sammy Davis Jr. performing a live version of “Mr. Bojangles, and I assumed it must have been written for him. That's how good it is.
Is that really the case? Is he the original artist for “Mr. Bojangles”?
Other than “The Candy Man,” I cannot name even one of his hit records, which strikes me as odd since he was regarded as an all-around great entertainer with a long career. How unusual is that?
Yvonne Furman, Sheboygan, Wisc.
DEAR YVONNE: Your observation is a valid one, though Davis is not the only major concert attraction whose fan base did not hinge on whether or not they made hit records.
Being a consummate showman singer, dancer, impressionist, comedian was enough to keep the crowds coming.
Then again, it's not as if he had only the one memorable hit song.
Sammy's first appearance on the singles sales charts came in 1954 with “Hey There,” his being just one of many recordings of the well-known number, originally performed on Broadway by John Raitt in “The Pajama Game.”
His “Hey There” made the Top 20, as did seven other singles during his seven-decade career:
1955: “Something's Gotta Give”/“Love Me Or Leave Me” (Both sides)
1955: “That Old Black Magic”
1962: “What Kind of Fool Am I”
1963 “The Shelter of Your Arms”
1967: “Don't Blame the Children”
1968: “I've Gotta Be Me”
1972 “The Candy Man”
Strangely, the significant momentum Davis gained with “The Candy Man,” his only No. 1 hit, dissipated as that record's popularity faded. At least his days of hit songs ended on the highest possible note.
Two other superstar attractions that come to mind, whose in-person draw far outstripped their record sales, are Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli who just happen to be mother and daughter.
Mostly in connection with her work in films, Judy had some hit singles between 1939 and '54, but no more, and Liza has never been on the best-selling singles charts.
Reviewing album sales, the story is about the same. Sammy, Judy, and Liza each had very few biggies.
The only LP by any of the three to reach No. 1 is “Judy at Carnegie Hall” (1961), for which Judy received a Gold Record, and a couple of Grammys.
Minnelli's “Liza with a Z” (1972) also earned Gold Record status.
The “Mr. Bojangles” saga begins in 1965, seven years before Sammy Davis released it on his “Sammy Davis Jr. Live” album.
The lyrics are based entirely on the real-life experiences of singer-songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker, and a cell mate calling himself Bojangles. The two met while both were incarcerated in New Orleans.
Walker put his composition to music, and his original version came out in the summer of 1968 (Atco 6594).
The tune became a regional hit for Jerry, but two years later, when recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (Liberty 56197), “Mr. Bojangles” landed in the nation's Top 10. It is their biggest hit ever.
Since then, no less than 50 different artists have recorded Walker's masterpiece.
IZ ZAT SO? Regarding “Mr. Bojangles,” Sammy Davis Jr. explained it this way to his audiences:
“I cannot do a show without including “Mr. Bojangles.” In fact, I would not do a show without including it. It's very special to me, and hits close to home. I almost feel like it was written for me, but it was not. Nor was it written about Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, as some people say. I did it the first time live with Tom Jones, in 1970 on his TV show. In that skit, Tom sang the song by himself, while I silently played the part of Mr. Bojangles, dancing and doing routines in sync with the lyrics.”
A mime no more, Sammy's own song-and-dance interpretation quickly became a signature segment of his own shows.